The harvest of the mental turf

It is spring as I write this. I say that to excuse myself; otherwise, like many a whimsical vernal assertion, what I'm about to say might come back to haunt me in late August.But the fact is that I rather like mowing lawns.

It has not always been so. I got collared into lawn-mowing at an early age, when a conspiracy between a reel-type power mower and a rough yard nearly flattened me each week. I was not, in those days, much taller than the handles, nor could I ever quite find the midway position on the throttle between the gallop and the plod. No doubt the mower, like a large and slightly malevolent horse, sensed my inability to control it. It would scamper off into the pine cones at the slightest provocation, only to grind along petulantly if I so much as millimetered back on the gas. I came to suspect that mowers were built by the same people who designed shower faucets.

But the power mower was in some ways the least of my worries. For after the major swaths had been cut, the edges had to be done. To this end my father kept , as a landed baron might retain an ancient but much-loved serf, a hand-propelled mower. It was a cast-iron affair, with a house-timber for a handle and fancy decorations on the wheels. I think I weighed more than it did, although it was certainly the better wrestler.

Until, that is, it met its demise from a fit of boyish pique. For one day, as was its wont, it bit off more than it could chew and shuddered to a halt. No amount of lunging would get it rolling again. The more I tried to shove it through the sizzling afternoon, the more frustrated I became -- until at last, thinking both to dislodge the blades and to teach the beast an unforgettable lesson, I plucked it up bodily and flung it down on a nearby sidewalk. Whereupon, to my horror, its right wheel shattered into bits of clinking metal. The baron was not pleased. After proper contrition, however, I was supplied with a slick rubber-tired model.

So the edging improved. But after that, the bane of my young green life, came the hand-clipping. I still fault Dante for not including, among the tortures of his Inferno, that of trimming thick, rubbery grasses with dull shears under damp branches on hot days. I even remember, one winter afternoon, setting up a castle of blocks on the living room rug -- and imagining that the ogre who owned it compelled his slaves to trim acres of lawn (the green carpet, in fact) with hand scissors.

Such clipping as I did, however, stood me in good stead in high-school years. One of my father's friends signed me up for the summer to do his yard. He lived in a house in an open field. Unfortunately, he wanted to live in a dense wood. So he planted his front yard, in three-foot intervals, with what must have been a hundred six-inch seedlings. My lingering love of the Red Sox is due to those trees. I used to spend hours in his front yard, a portable radio beside me, snipping around them and listening to afternoon games. They weren't very good that year. But they were better than watching oaks grow.

So it wasn't until I got to college that I found, to my surprise, that I rather missed mowing. Each spring, as I watched the great tractor mowers spinning up a green spray on the campus, I would think how nice it would be to ride about like that under the elms. And now and then, home for a holiday, I would take a turn on the turf. I suspect it was the same sort of pleasure grandparents take in their grandchildren -- heightened by the knowledge that the responsibility for continuing the care lies elsewhere.

I thought of these things the other evening as I was mowing our lawn. For that's one of the pleasures of mowing. It lets you think idle thoughts. Not the great distillations of ideas that come in hours of quiet concentration.Mowing is just demanding enough to drive logic into low gear, just discontinuous enough to derail the long, linked trains of reason. But it allows , around its edges, all sorts of fancies to flow and build. Scraps of half-remembered conversations rattle up against a midnight insight and suddenly reveal new meanings. Small solutions present themselves -- how to fix that sagging shelf in the garage, whom to have over on the weekend. Images that once stood helplessly in isolation begin to pattern themselves.

And that, I think, is the value of mowing. So much of the world still imagines that "productivity" has to do with large blocks of wholly focused time, driven by exhausting efforts tof mental and physical intensity. Its opposite is said to be "recreation," where one tunes the mind to mental zero and vegetates.

Frankly, I've never been able to do either. My productivity is always filled with speculation, my recreation with discovery.So I was pleased, the other day, when I found that writers are not the only ones who think this way. James Watson, the biologist known for his discovery of the double helix, once wrote that "it's necessary to be slightly underemployed if you are to do something significant." He was talking about the unstructured time needed to think world- class thoughts.Maybe he too liked mowing. Maybe, as the curved blades of his mower barber-poled across the grass, he thought of the interwined structure of the DNA molecule.

Or maybe he didn't. But I did. Which, after all, is all it takes to redeem a whole evening of mowing.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.